The Alon Collective leaves some readers at the border while Malaysian Poems leave others bored
By Toh Hsien Min
In-Sights: Malaysian Poems
What the Water Said
Over the course of my literary gallivanting in the second half of 2004, I was grateful to receive two poetry anthologies from Malaysia and the Philippines respectively. Much as the Southeast Asian region might seem as or arguably more compact even as or than Europe, there isn’t as much of a sense of cultural (and specifically literary) interaction and cross-pollination as in the Old World, so I welcomed the chance to read books I would not normally have got my hands on and to understand a little more about our literary neighbourhood.
I wasn’t holding a copy of In-Sights: Malaysian Poems in my hands when, on New Year’s Day, my Malaysian housemate took me to the bak kut teh coffeeshop in Rangoon Road. It was set at the corner of a row of shophouses, adjacent to a grassy patch, and its tables were in that almost-open-air of a stretched red tarpaulin awning. There were tiny teacups in a metal basin on the table, ready for rolling in boiled water, as in the old Straits style. As we waited for the bowls of fragrant rib soup to arrive, I remarked that the place rather reminded me of Malaysia. The housemate took mock offence. Why did everything that was slightly old or quaint invariably become a reminder of Malaysia? I said, but Malaysia is like that, recalling roadside dim sum joints in KL suburbs such as Jalan Ipoh. Even the housemate had to reluctantly agree.
Unfortunately, In-Sights presents itself in a similar manner, all the way from the somewhat odd title through the rather scattershot clutch of poems. The predominant note that it strikes is that Malaysian poetry in English has a long way to go. Looking at the anthology positively, one could come away from it with the sense of a kind of music, a taste of rural lyricism that has not served some European poetry badly as a base. Greek, Polish and Russian poets, for example, have been able to marry the rural idiom to modern sensibilities so as to evolve poetries that are highly appreciated internationally. In In-Sights, this sense of both place and song comes through especially in the translated poems. For example, Suhaimi Haji Muhammad’s ‘A Father’s Words for a Lost Child’, translated by Harry Aveling, has the lilt of religious text / folksong:
A. Wahab Ali’s “compliant / as a swing / door” (trans. Muhammad Haji Salleh) is almost proverbial in its authority, as is Siti Zainon Ismail’s ‘A Song of Silence’ (trans. Harry Aveling):
The rural lyricism even informs the poetry of non-Malay Malaysians. There is ritualism expressed in Shirley Lim’s ‘Hands’, and Hilary Tham’s version of the female inconvenience as “tides / within my body” addressed with a pound of rice-paper redeems it for nature effortlessly while situating it within the flow of received wisdom passed down through generations. It’s noteworthy also how much more emphasis Malaysian poets place on the family; even if Zurinah Hassan’s poem, describing the birth of her child as being “defeated by miracle” is a little over-dramatic, it shows how much the poet finds definition in family: “Your birth / is the rebirth of myself”.
However, a less generous reading of the anthology might attribute some of these features to a poverty of words. In Kee Thuan Chye’s poem ‘A Figure Forgotten in Hours Not-Of-Need’ the last line “I sometimes cry” could have been the sort of simplicity to offer something surprising after lines of some complexity, but after a set of lines in the same comatose vein it is almost heart-stoppingly bathetic. This bears ill comparison to the way Muhammad Haji Salleh manages to concentrate a subtle weight into “it was the beginning of an answer” in his poem on the coming of rain; sadly to say, within the spectrum of the book there are more examples in the former mould than in the latter. It’s hard to resist observing that Omar Mohd Noor would have been more accurate if instead of opening his poem ‘My Clever Pupils’ with, “my teaching is dull today”, he had simply admitted, “my poetry is dull today”. Might one of his pupils have been Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof? One might guess so, given the schoolboy effort of ‘Angsanas’, quoted here in full:
What the existence of extremes really points out in an anthology is its inconsistency, and the inconsistency has to be laid squarely at the feet of the editor. Even on the level of the poem, the reasonably good précis of “hot decades of labour” is followed by the jolt of “now is sudden time” in Muhammad Haji Salleh’s opening poem. The abysmal editing allows punctuation to veer between strict and non-existent in one poem, “Grand dad” to coexist with “Grandma” in another, and “casuarina” to change into “casaurina” in yet another. In Usman Awang’s ‘Little Girl’, translated by Adibah Amin, the first two lines, “Her body reminded me of / areca palm in quiet country” puts to mind a whole plantation of palms by leaving out the article, only to restore it four lines later. All these things should have been caught and denied access into the anthology. Moreover, the editorial decision to adopt a sectional structure based on themes at best accentuates an already plaintive voice, but more generally, paradoxically, concentrates the themes into dilution, most strikingly where the theme of death is done to death. The structure also obstructs insights, as it were, into Malaysian poetics. Are these subjects obsessions in Malaysian poetry or do they just appear that way grace ŕ the editor?
As such, the main usefulness I found in In-Sights was further confirmation that the most interesting Malaysian poems still belong to the usual voices. ‘A Family Dialogue’ by Ee Tiang Hong and ‘At the Door’ by Wong Phui Nam stand out above the crowd, but it is really Chin Woon Ping, with her striking images of “Pomegranates plumping to the sand”, “guava wind” and the sensual way she lets her “tide slide over dark silt” (‘Malacca Song’, also found in her collection In My Mother’s Dream), and her account of a relative “cross-legged / on the cool plank floor, […] combing / her daughter’s oily hair for nits / to squeeze to death” (‘The Kampongs’), who stakes a convincing claim to be the biggest fish in the pond. Fadzilah Amin, in her poem on ronggeng, cries, “What rich variety of movement and gesture could be ours”, but she could have well been bemoaning the unrealized potential of Malaysian poetry.
I had higher hopes for the What the Water Said however. It’s difficult to dispute that the Philippines currently produces the largest volume of English-language poetry in Southeast Asia – more even than Singapore and certainly Hong Kong – and quite a lot of it is very good. What the Water Said isn’t, however, so much an attempt to capture a cross-section of Filipino poetry (for which even the Singapore-Filipino collaboration Love Gathers All better serves) as a collection of poetry by a community of writers originally from De La Salle University in Manila who call themselves the Alon Collective.
As with many writing groups, there is a sense about the Alon Collective of an assertion upon the literary hierarchy in their country. One characteristic that comes quickly to the fore is how much the poems in this book are concerned about ways of seeing, or determining ways of seeing for the reader. The colon is an often-used punctuation mark:
This emphasis on directing vision stands out partly for its insistence, but more because the things the poets direct us to see do not always shimmer true. In the last extract above, some thought would introduce some questioning. Why should glare warp faces? If the light is shining in your eyes, you merely have to move to a different vantage point (or wear sunglasses). But the direction of the light should have more importance than even the poet gives it. It’s clear in the extract that the light isn’t in the poet’s eyes but coming from behind the poet: the “faces are drenched in light” as the poem continues, which means the brighter sunlight should be helping the poet to see more clearly. The deeper question that hovers over this anthology is whether such an emphasis on directing the vision is an exercise of authorial control that flexes its muscles or whether it is ingenuous, artless even, and/or built on assumed bases.
This question takes on importance partly because there appears to be a lot to see. Alice M. Sun-Cua, for example, plays the role of traveller, going from Morocco to Paris to Madrid, all the while rendering lengthy descriptions of each of the places she finds herself in. Three stanzas on the Jardin de la Luxembourg, for example, linger with the detail of travel notes but do not occupy significant space in the poem, and as such fail to engage the reader. Worse, the reader does notice; in a novel, the detail would be scene-setting, but what takes up three-sevenths of a poem has to punch its weight. It’s interesting in her case to contrast most of her work with the only poem of hers that reads with genuine style and feeling, ‘With Words’:
The former poem trips up over its surface culture phrasebook lexicon, while the latter poem works partly by being placeless and foreign-nounless, and yet it remains unsurprising to see the tourism topos baring itself in Sun-Cua’s ‘Postcards for Home’, not two streets away from Isidoro M. Cruz’s tourist-in-Madrid poem.
It seems almost as though the poets assume that whatever is lovingly sketched out is worth the seeing, especially if they have sown enough unusual words into the earth of their poems. I postulate this because there is in the anthology so much in the way of assumption underlying the poems, a sense of what Vicente Garcia Groyon observes in ‘Drifting’ as “The others know you / too well to argue”. To illustrate, here is Shirley O. Lua characterizing “the taste of poverty”:
Leaving out who Hernando Ocampo is and what his Contrast stands for, imagining a spectrum of readers will outline the problems clearly. If you were a European reader, the most you would have gone away with is that the immediate subject is some kind of foodstuff, presumably, whatever in the world an “iceberg of rainbow” was. If you were a Singaporean (or indeed Malaysian) reader, you wouldn’t know what food it was until you reached “iceberg of rainbow”, whereupon you would probably guess that it was ice kachang in a different culture, but you would still have no understanding of what “ube” and “monggo” were, and why these deserve to be italicized while “langka” remains in regular type. If you were a Filipino reader, however…
What this illustrates is a more fundamental problem that the Alon writers might want to consider more closely, which is that Filipino poetry in this form does not travel, even if their poets do. An extreme case in point is the inclusion in this anthology of John Iremeo E. Teodoro’s and Nonon V. Carandang’s poems in Tagalog, without accompanying translations. In other words, the greater technical competency of the Filipino poets is in this anthology let down badly by their reluctance, inability or, worst, inattention to packaging their work in a form that can be easily appreciated outside their borders, or, perhaps to be more precise, outside of whichever borders they appropriate at the time.
It’s not known what editorial process was put in motion, and no editor is named. Nonetheless, it’s somewhat more successful as an anthology than In-Sights, particularly in the also sectional structure, taking off from individual lines that slip loosely over themes, rather than from broad abstractions as in the previous book. The notable flaw here is that three poets enjoy disproportionate representation. Teodoro and Sun-Cua are two. The third, Sid Gomez Hildawa, is the Chin Woon Ping of this volume. The detail of vision of this architect and visual artist is stunning, whether he is describing a young man cleaning his shoes or a photograph taken to send to a lately loved one. With deft assurance, he links his concrete imagery and his seemingly provisional conclusions:
The elegance of ‘Long Distance Call’ and the deliberately equivocal movement between extension and retraction in ‘If This Were Not Love’, almost like a poem-length subjunctive, deserve special mention, but the one poem of Hildawa’s I would have loved to quote in full, would it not have taken up too much space, is ‘Collapsing Space’, as it is as perfect a poem as I have read all year. Its original take on “collapsing space // by dividing time” (note the excellent stanza break) unfolds scintillatingly to its conclusion on:
For me, What the Water Said will be remembered as a stage for Sid Gomez Hildawa, standing up and saying, “am here”.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005